To fund programs in an era of tight finances, the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs is using a model that may be a bit unusual in the academic world of public policy: the self-funded fellow.
The salaries and benefits of the school’s 30-plus tenured and tenure-track faculty are funded by the school. But it’s up to the Humphrey’s 19 non-tenured faculty, fellows and research staff to raise some or practically all of the money — through grants, donations and corporate sponsorships — to support their own positions.
It’s a model unfamiliar to some leaders of public policy institutes, but others say it’s becoming more widespread in an era of tight budgets and declining state spending — all despite potential conflicts of interest inherent in its structure.
“It’s part of what happening in higher education – a reliance on soft money,” said Henry Brady, dean of the University of California – Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.
Academic “soft money” — as opposed to political soft money — refers to funding that comes from outside a college or university, and which needs to be continually raised. Typical sources are federal and state grants, but they also include corporate grants as well as donations from organizations and individuals.
Critics of soft money have questioned its influence on the sciences. They say the scramble for funding often takes time away from research, and that scientists are often too focused on the interests of their sponsors and not enough on the pursuit of truth.
Its growing role in research has been a high-profile concern for years in the scientific community, especially in fields such as medicine and public health, as shown in a 2000 article in The Atlantic Monthly.
It’s also playing a role in public policy scholarship — at least at the U. That became clear during a regents’ investigation this spring into whether former Republican state legislator Steve Sviggum should be allowed to serve both as a regent and legislative fellow at the Humphrey.
As a Humphrey fellow, Sviggum had to fund most his own $80,000-a-year half-time position, mainly through donations.
According to Sviggum’s Feb. 1 appointment letter — for a slot he has since abandoned — he was offered a position as legislative fellow at the Humphrey’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance from Jan 31 of this year to June 17, 2012, subject to renewal.
He was to be paid $120,000 over 18 months with no benefits. The school would pay him $12,000 to teach a legislative course and oversee an internship this spring and next. But the rest — 90 percent — was to come from “external funds” that he raised, the letter states.
His duties included helping out with student projects, hosting public forums, writing op-ed pieces for newspapers and magazines, drafting a book manuscript on the Jesse Ventura administration, and working with the Humphrey School to raise funds for renovation of the Humphrey Forum.
Sviggum could boost his salary to a maximum of $150,000 (the equivalent of a full-time position) by raising more money, but any money raised beyond that amount would go to the center for various school-related activities and programs, Humphrey spokeswoman Anne Mason wrote in an e-mail.
[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]”It is peculiar to me to invite a non-research appointee to a university and request that they pay for themselves. … While soft-funded positions for non-research appointments are theoretically possible, I am not aware that this practice is widely used in major research universities.” [/module]
It was the second such appointment for Sviggum. In early 2007 he received a two-year contract for a two-day-a-week position with similar duties, which paid up to $50,000 a year depending on how much money he raised.
But he resigned the Humphrey position in August 2007 to become commissioner of the state Department of Labor & Industry under Gov. Tim Pawlenty. (He continued to teach one course a semester as a paid adjunct professor.)
The Humphrey Way
Raising the money to support one’s appointment “is the norm for Fellows at the Humphrey Institute,” states a Board of Regents document produced earlier this year when the board investigated whether Sviggum’s roles as both regent and fellow constituted a conflict of interest.
Those fellows include such well-known figures as Steve Kelley, Tim Penny and Art Rolnick. The amount they have to raise varies. For example, a 2007 appointment letter for Kelley shows he had to raise the funds for half of his salary, though he could reduce that amount through teaching.
For fellows such as Sviggum, a lot of the funding doesn’t come from the traditional grant-writing process, said Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey School’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. The amount of money available from grants is declining, he said, and unlike faculty in many other sciences, a number of public policy fellows aren’t academics and don’t have Ph.D.s — something many of the traditional grant-writing agencies and foundations look for.
Meanwhile, public affairs schools often find tapping alumni for dollars difficult.
Donald Moynihan, associate director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, said, “Most graduates go into nonprofit or government work, so they rarely become millionaires we can tap into 20 years later.”
Jacobs said he didn’t have details of Sviggum’s sources of funding, but said it would come from “some of the people he’s worked with in the past — probably businesses and individual contributions.”
Those are the types of financial sources that schools often have to turn to if they want to employ fellows with real-world experience and connections — leaders who are crucial to making public policy education relevant, Jacobs and some other policy institute leaders said.
“A lot of funding is declining, so universities are becoming more entrepreneurial, more strategic in how they get funding,” Jacobs said.
[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”] “There’s always a risk of a conflict of interest. It would be foolish to deny that. Appearances of conflicts of interest are more common than actual misbehavior, (but) there are serious issues that have to be addressed.”[/module]
The Humphrey funding arrangement with fellows such as Sviggum struck leaders of several public policy schools as unusual.
Officials at the University of Michigan, University of Kansas, University of Washington, University of Texas, Arizona State and the University of Wisconsin – Madison — all of whom saw a copy of Sviggum’s employment letter — said those programs don’t have the Humphrey model. Neither did Harvard University, whose spokeswoman reviewed a description of the funding model.
Marilu Goodyear, chairwoman of the University of Kansas’ Department of Public Administration, said in an e-mail: “I have certainly heard of this model and (am aware that) other universities do this. We are small enough that we don’t have many “fellow” type people. Normally it would start out with adjunct teaching, and then often opportunity to apply for research grants come along, and that provides temporary funding.”
Berkeley’s Brady said the practice does exist in some form at Berkeley and other universities.
“I don’t know if it’s a common thing, but it’s the kind of thing that’s in the general framework” of funding, he wrote. “And I don’t necessarily see that as a problem. … I certainly don’t have (tons of money for fellows) in my coffers. … You give them an office and a chance to use the name and say, ‘Good luck in raising some money.”
Although Humphrey Executive Associate Dean Greg Lindsey said such an arrangement existed when he ran the Center for Urban Policy and Environment at Indiana University, his former colleague, David Reingold, associate dean for Bloomington at Indiana’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said he hadn’t encountered it there.
Reingold wrote in an e-mail, “It is peculiar to me to invite a non-research appointee to a university and request that they pay for themselves. Soft-funded positions are common in universities for research-based appointments where the individual can cover their salary with indirect cost-recovery from external research grants. While soft-funded positions for non-research appointments are theoretically possible, I am not aware that this practice is widely used in major research universities.”
After reading Sviggum’s contract, he wrote, “Perhaps I should be giving the Humphrey Institute more credit for their creativity in using soft-funding to hire non-research staff. … Just because it is an uncommon practice … doesn’t mean it is a bad practice. In some sense, it is a crafty way to raise money.”
But what about concerns over potential conflicts of interest? Just who are senior fellows beholden to when they accept money? It’s a question acknowledged by a number of academics — both in public policy and outside.
John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors, said, “We do have a lot of concerns with the concept of faculty members required to secure (their own funding) because it clearly makes them much more reliant on the will of the funders and (may) put some limits on the topics they would explore, or questions they’d raise.”
Humphrey’s Lindsey acknowledged, “There’s always a risk of a conflict of interest. It would be foolish to deny that. … Appearances of conflicts of interest are more common than actual misbehavior, (but) there are serious issues that have to be addressed.”
(Lindsey was the Humphrey School’s interim dean at the time of the interview.)
Jacobs said he thought the room for conflicts of interest in senior-fellow positions is small.
“The issue you’re raising is pervasive at the university — the number of people who have to raise money for their salaries,” he said. “But Sviggum turns out not to be the best case for it. … There’s not a direct tie between the financial interest of a company and what he does. It’s more diffuse.”
What Sviggum was supposed to teach, he said, “is just not sexy. It’s explaining the public process to students. … The nature of any potential conflict is very different.”
Sandra Archibald, a former professor and deputy associate dean at the Humphrey who’s now dean of the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, seemed to agree.
“Students want to hear both sides,” she said. If a biased professor doesn’t do a good job in the classroom, “students will point it out.”
That said, Archibald said she doesn’t like the self-funded arrangement and is worried that fund-raising might distract faculty from their primary duties. She has not employed the model at her school, she said, but acknowledged “scarce times” might make it necessary for some.
Why would donors enter such an arrangement? It’s easy to understand companies investing in research in their scientific field, philanthropists giving back to their alma mater, or big wigs wanting to see their names etched on a performing-arts building or stadium. But public policy?
For philanthropist Eugene Frey, chairman of the Frey Foundation, his private donation to Sviggum was a “simple gesture of friendship” for the years they worked together while Sviggum was in the legislature, said his son, James Frey.
Red Wing Publishing Company Chairman Arlin Albrecht said he gave at least $1,000 to Sviggum because of Sviggum’s “experience and temperament.”
Although he said Sviggum tends to rise above partisanship, Albrecht said, “He’s not a left-winger .. so I think that it would be good to inject someone who’s not quite so far left as, quite frankly, a lot of the Humphrey Institute people are. They have backgrounds in academia, and their prejudices are pretty clear.”
Albrecht said he’d hoped Sviggum “would provide a moderating balance” to the program.
When considering the donor-fellow relationship, current and former Humphrey officials said, one must remember that the money pipeline from donor to fellow isn’t direct. Center for School Change Director Joe Nathan, who worked as a Humphrey senior fellow from 1987 to 2009, said the U oversees all donations coming to fellows.
[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]”You can’t get ‘holier than thou. Purity is going to lead to not having a university left.”[/module]
“The U has strong conflict-of-interest procedures which require a public disclosure,” he said. “We made sure when doing research that we made it clear in all publications what our source of money was, so people could judge conclusions and recommendations.”
That said, a Humphrey spokeswoman originally said the school would not release the names of Sviggum’s donors. After MPR filed a request under the state’s data practices law, the U began releasing information. (MPR is still compiling and analyzing the data.)
Michael Tanner, vice president for academic affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said such oversight and disclosure are indeed crucial.
But what about in less formal affairs, such as public presentations and commentaries in the mainstream news media, where sources of funding aren’t necessarily disclosed? Wouldn’t such channels have even more impact on popular opinion than scholarly articles, and so give donors’ opinions more influence?
“I guess that’s potentially the case,” Lindsey said, but added that one must consider the practical matter of how to list all relevant funding source every time a fellow addresses the public.
Still, such issues “are questions of relevance to the public’s fear, so it’s good to ask them.”
In any case, Berkeley’s Brady said soft money is something higher education will have to put up with if it’s not going to get much money from the state.
“You can’t get ‘holier than thou,'” he said. “Purity is going to lead to not having a university left.”